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The Damaging Effects of Alcohol on a Student’s Brain

For years, unwarranted alcohol consumption has been causing one of the predominant public health issues in the United States. Excessive drinking has created a massive effect on the health and social behavior in the country, including that of college students.

Generally, drinking is one of the most common social activities that students perceive as a normal part of their college experience. Some students may attend college with conventional drinking habits, and the thrill in the college atmosphere itself aggravates the problem. In fact, statistics say around 20% of college students suffer from Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

Drinking has negative effects on college students, their families, and their respective colleges. According to an extensive research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in 2015, drinking has been prevalent among 86.4% of students ages 18 and above. The same report noted that 1,825 college students 18 to 24 years old lost their lives due to alcohol-related road accidents. Roughly 97,000 students in the same age range have been involved in sexual assaults and rape due to excessive drinking.

In the same year, it was also reported that 1 out of 4 college students had poor academic standing because of excessive drinking. Students missed classes, were failing in their exams and academic papers, or even dropped out of school. Excessive drinking also had other detrimental consequences on students such as health problems, injuries due to road accidents, vandalism, rape, unsafe sex, and suicidal attempts.

As a result of unsafe sex, teenage pregnancy is also considered as a consequence of uncontrolled drinking. Recent reports say Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is observed in 2 to 7 cases per 1,000 experimental subjects. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) has been relatively high as it has also been seen in 20 to 50 cases per 1,000 subjects.

Truth be told; alcohol consumption is accepted among college students. College isn’t merely about drowning oneself in heavy academic demands. Most college students don’t mind going out to take a breather or celebrate after conquering particularly heavy challenges, such as major examinations. There is nothing wrong with that but then again, it pays for every student to be aware of the unhealthy levels of alcohol consumption and their ill effects on the brain.

Binge Drinking: The Easiest Way to Brain Damage

Binge drinking is considered a serious form of alcohol consumption among college students in the United States. According to NIAAA, binge or impulsive drinking is a type of drinking pattern that generates a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08g/dL or above the regular driving limit. This normally occurs when the consumption is at least 4 to 5 glasses of liquor in a span of 2 hours. Research also indicates that people who binge drink do get extremely drunk. Ironically, college students who are prone to binge drinking are those who are not alcohol-dependent.

According to a recent report, 37.9% of college students between 18 to 22 years old were reported to binge drink during the last few months prior to the national survey. Binge drinkers with an alcohol consumption of at least 3 times a week were about 6 times more likely to experience poor academic performance compared to those who consumed alcohol but have never resulted in binge drinking. Moreover, students who impulsively drink are probably 5 times prone to absences and tardiness compared to those who frequently drink alcohol.

binge drinking chart - alcohol consumption
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Factors Affecting Binge Drinking

Given that most college students already have established drinking routines, there are numerous factors that may affect their tendency to drink impulsively. Some of these include the availability of all forms of liquor in the neighborhood, inconsistencies in the implementation of drinking laws, varying schedules, as well as a limited time with parents and guardians. Tellingly, the correlation between high binge drinking rates and frequent driving under alcoholic influence cases has been observed among college students through the years.

Normally, the first six weeks of being a freshman in college are considered to be the most susceptible period for binge drinking. This is entirely due to academic pressures and student expectations that arise at the beginning of the school year. It was also suggested that young adults are more prone to excessive drinking and staying up late without being extremely sedated compared to older adults. This is one of the most probable reasons why binge drinking is most common among college students and adolescents compared to older adults.

It was also observed in previous research that college students who take heavy math and science courses, as well as those involved in athletic programs, have the tendency to binge drink more than other students with different courses. Furthermore, spontaneous drinking is more common among students who stay in dormitories as well as those who are members of fraternities and sororities compared to students who live with their families.

Parental influence is also considered as one of the factors affecting the student’s tendency to drink impulsively. Reports have also shown that students avoid drinking because their parents have properly oriented them regarding the adverse consequences of impulsive alcohol consumption.

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Binge Drinking and the Brain

The ancient joke that says you can use a few drinks to “murder a few brain cells” may not be funny after all. That’s because there is relatively an extensive amount of research detailing the negative effects of impulsive drinking on the brain of college students, in particular.

Some of the findings on binge drinking and its consequences on mental health include the following:

  • Binge drinkers are more prone to blackouts. Excessive and impulsive drinking leads to a sudden increase in blood alcohol levels, which eventually results in blackouts. Female students who binge drink were found to be of a higher risk to blackouts than males. This is due to the varying levels of metabolism on both genders.
  • Binge drinking causes brain shrinkage. One of the most common signs of brain damage is brain reduction or shrinkage. Both genders suffer similar cognitive and learning problems due to impulsive drinking. However, the major difference is that the brains of women are found to be more susceptible to alcohol-related brain shrinkage than men.
  • Binge drinking leads to decreased responses to stimuli. Consuming profuse amounts of liquor in a short span of time affects specific regions of the brain that are responsible for comprehension and reaction.
  • Binge drinking below 21 years old results to slow neurological maturation. Our brain constantly develops from birth until the age of 25 years old. As such, the brains of adolescents and young adults are more vulnerable to the toxic effects of alcohol compared to older adults. This is why impulsive drinking among pregnant teenage mothers can cause underdeveloped brains or FASD in infants. Delayed neurological maturation is one of the serious effects of binge drinking, and this may be unalterable for adolescents and young adults.
  • Binge drinking causes memory lapses or memory loss. College students who are prone to binge drinking have difficulty focusing and memorizing their lessons. Impulsive drinking affects the region of the brain that is responsible for memory and other cognitive tasks.
  • Binge drinking leads to risky decision-making and confusion. College students who impulsively drink tend to make rash decisions which may put them in high-risk circumstances. Moreover, binge drinking greatly affects a student’s control and judgment. Eventually, binge drinking results to heavy alcohol dependency.

Even more alarming, binge drinking can also result in the following serious conditions:

  • Severe injuries due to road accidents falls, and alcohol poisoning
  • Aggressive and violent behavior leading to crimes such as suicide, homicide, sexual assaults, and rape.
  • Sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs)
  • Teenage pregnancy, miscarriage or stillbirth
  • Sudden infant death syndrome
  • Hypertension, stroke, heart and liver illnesses
  • Breast, mouth, throat, esophageal, liver, and colon cancers
  • Greater alcohol dependence

Controlling Binge Drinking

American colleges and universities are constantly developing strategies on how to educate their students regarding the negative effects of binge drinking.

In Ohio State University, the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery was able to create the Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT). Several campuses in the United States were able to use this method to monitor all students on their levels of alcohol consumption. One of the groups that utilized the SBIRT is the Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking and Related Problems, an association comprising of 15 colleges that led the entire state to prohibit extreme-strength liquor in 2015 as well as powdered alcohol in 2016.

In 2014, Beth McMurtie, a journalist of the Chronicle of Higher Education, mobilized several colleges to encourage them to educate students on alcohol consumption. According to McMurtie, colleges should promote strict enforcement strategies to limit binge drinking.

Boston University established the AlcoholEdu for College program, which requires all college freshmen to be aware regarding high-risk drinking situations. Known as the “good cop-bad cop approach”, this program was implemented in collaboration with law enforcement officials who were tasked to track down fake IDs for underage students and ban older students from purchasing alcohol on behalf of adolescents. One of the disciplinary measures for students who are caught in the loss of scholarship.

Indiana University has already placed a restriction on hard liquor during fraternity parties, while Stanford University has also banned alcohol in undergraduate social events. The University of Michigan, on the other hand, has employed student volunteers to monitor their fellow students on binge drinking. Finally, North Dakota State University has completely banned alcohol regardless of status and age.

Alcohol Abuse: More Complex Approach towards Greater Brain Damage

Similar to binge drinking, alcohol abuse may not technically be considered a form of addiction. Alcohol abuse can be described as excessive alcohol consumption, which eventually leads to grave illnesses and high-risk circumstances. Most college students are prone to heavy drinking because of peer pressure. Some students think that alcohol induces a feeling of freedom and vitality. Alcohol abuse may also originate from the extreme desire to satisfy oneself through parties and after-exam unwinding activities. Other students consume alcohol in excessive amounts to cope with depression and stress.

A 2015 report revealed that heavy drinking resulting in alcohol abuse occurred in 12.5% of college students who are 18 to 22 years old during the past month prior to the survey. This was later on compared with 8.5% of college students who occasionally go for a drink.

Alcohol Abuse and the Brain

The thing about alcohol abuse is that it causes greater damage to the brain than anyone can ever think of. Here are some of its ill effects:

  • Alcohol abuse causes severe mood swings. College students who excessively drink alcohol have a greater tendency to experience extreme mood shifts, anxiety, and depression.
  • Alcohol abuse leads to frequent confusion and an impaired memory. Excessive alcohol consumption causes inability to remember short words and names. College students who abuse alcohol also tend to lose their concentration in class.
  • Alcohol abuse may also result in blackouts. Copious quantities of alcohol, if consumed rapidly and on an empty stomach, may cause blackouts. Blackouts are short periods wherein a heavily-intoxicated individual experiences temporary or extreme memory loss. Prior to blackouts, college students who drink excessively may be involved in high-risk situations like that of vandalism, unsafe sex, and dangerous driving.
  • Alcohol abuse causes a feeling of sickness and nausea. Excessive alcohol consumption eventually results in delayed responses, vomiting, nausea, and extreme headaches.
  • Alcohol abuse leads to the Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. College students who are heavy drinkers may experience a deficiency of thiamine or Vitamin B1, an important nutrient in brain tissues. Thiamine deficiency eventually results in a certain brain disorder known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS). This disorder is comprised of two conditions, namely, Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis that are characterized by extreme confusion, nerve paralysis, eye disturbances, and lack of muscle coordination, and constant learning or memory lapses, extreme forgetfulness, and impaired muscle coordination.

Aside from the above-mentioned consequences of alcohol abuse on mental health and cognitive development, there are other physical, mental and emotional effects you may need to consider:

  • Drastic weight loss
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Erratic sleep patterns
  • Slurred speech
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of interest in physical activities
  • Drunk driving, which may lead to motor accidents
  • Stupor or “dazed behavior”
  • Coma, in extreme cases
  • Liver and heart diseases

How to Treat and Prevent Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse can be treated through abstinence and detoxification. Heavy and frequent drinkers should also schedule a visit with a doctor to check whether adverse health conditions are already present. This may also help in the treatment of alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

It is quite better to be aware of the fact that most students who enter college are more vulnerable to alcohol abuse. Therefore, it is highly important to talk about its risks and negative effects with your families so as to avoid excessive alcohol consumption.

students drinking - alcohol abuse
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If you’re a college student, chances are, you drink to your heart’s content. After all, college life is about enjoying your freedom and making every moment pleasurable–but learn to draw the line. When it comes to alcohol consumption, quit the “drink till you drop” mentality. Look out for the dangers and risks associated with binge drinking and alcohol abuse. Set boundaries to keep yourself safe and protect your brain from damage.

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